Are the Tories getting more serious about tackling climate change?

OPINION: Two new documents could provide a sense of whether the government is planning for a less climate-hostile future in Ontario
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Nov 27, 2020
Ontario Power Generation aims to support half a million electric vehicles by 2040. (iStock/BirdImages)

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Regular observers of Ontario climate policy will know that the words “Ontario climate policy” are nearly an oxymoron right now; both courts and oversight officers gave the province’s approach a skeptical treatment in the past month. But Environment Minister Jeff Yurek said last week that an updated plan is coming, and two recent documents could give us a sign of what the Tories are thinking as they try to appear modestly more serious about addressing climate change.

The first is a discussion paper for a provincial hydrogen strategy. Like many jurisdictions, Ontario is looking at encouraging the development of a hydrogen economy — potentially using a carbon-free gas as an energy medium to replace current fossil-fuel uses. Some of us are old enough to remember the first wave of hype around hydrogen in the late 1990s, when Canadian firms, such as Ballard, promised an energy revolution that has yet to materialize a generation later.

But science marches on, and the Tories are hardly alone in looking affectionately at hydrogen as a possible replacement for oil and gas. Their federal counterparts are also very interested, as is Alberta, so there’s potential for actual collaboration on climate policy between governments that haven’t seen eye to eye recently.

But not all hydrogen is created equal, at least as far as climate policy goes. The most plentiful element in the universe, it can be extracted cleanly from water using carbon-free electricity — or it can be extracted from natural gas, oil, or even coal. Extracting hydrogen from fossil fuels still creates carbon-dioxide emissions that render the environmental benefit dubious unless the greenhouse gases are stored somewhere for the long-term (through a process called carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS).

The good news for Ontario is that the government is emphasizing the “low carbon” side of a hydrogen future, with reducing greenhouse gas as the first of the key principles the Tories want to address. While the discussion paper outlines general principles, it’s light on actual implementation details — and, for now, that’s fine.

The final principle the discussion paper lists is also notable: the government wants to use hydrogen “where and when it makes sense” or, as it helpfully elaborates, “where electrification and/or biofuels are not feasible” ways to reduce GHG emissions.

This is important, because, too often, discussions of hydrogen-power adoption put the technology cart before the utility horse — a concern I’ve raised repeatedly, almost monotonously, about the proposal to run GO trains on hydrogen. There are undoubtedly going to be areas of the energy system where hydrogen will make sense for consumers, but the problem with government enthusiasm is that it can overwhelm good sense.

The other major document released this week didn’t come from the government specifically, but rather from Ontario Power Generation — the electricity company whose only shareholder happens to be the government of Ontario. OPG released its own climate plan, in which it promises both to become a net-zero GHG power company by 2040 and to help Ontario become a net-zero economy by 2050. OPG’s recent work supporting small modular nuclear reactors is part of that goal, but so is increased use of hydroelectric dams and other forms of renewables, as well as electricity storage (in batteries or other technologies).

But OPG has its own interests, of course, and one of them is selling people more electricity. So it’s natural that replacing oil and gas with electricity plays a big role in OPG’s plan for a less climate-hostile future in Ontario. Electric cars are just the most visible example of this kind of transition, but others are possible — for example, replacing natural gas with heat pumps in home heating. OPG’s electrification goals range from the modest (supporting half a million electric vehicles by 2040) to the more ambitious (supporting 1 million EVs, plus electrifying a major public-transit operator), and it hopes that could reduce emissions by 1.5 megatonnes of GHGs.

For comparison, the government announcement this week that gas stations will have to increase the ethanol content in their gasoline to 15 per cent is estimated to reduce GHGs by “up to” one megatonne, and there’s a long history of ethanol proponents overstating the benefits of that biofuel.

Strictly speaking, these documents don’t contradict each other. But there is a tension here: the government’s hydrogen ambitions are supposed to fill the gaps left by electrification and biofuels, so the more ambitious OPG’s climate plan is, the less room there will be for hydrogen to play. Maybe everyone will make nice and get along, but it’s entirely possible that this government or the next one will have to make a choice of where to turn the policy dial: hydrogen or electricity.

The fact (a reality of physics, not a political conclusion) that the cleanest option for hydrogen — extraction from water — requires an abundant supply of cheap, clean electricity actually sums up the dilemma for hydrogen boosters: If we need huge volumes of clean electricity for the hydrogen future anyway, why wouldn’t we just use it directly instead of going through all the difficulty of creating, storing, and moving hydrogen around?

One answer could be that the Tories are happy to work with oil and gas companies to adopt dirtier but more economical sources of hydrogen while trying to fly the banner of climate wokeness. Another might be that the government wants to use the hydrogen future to justify even grander ambitions for Ontario’s nuclear sector. But, to be clear, those are possibilities — not accusations. It’s early days yet, and we’ll have a better sense of what the government’s ambitions are in the new year.

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